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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Music vs. Fidelity = Emotion?

Audiophiles often claim their expensive stereo rigs bring them closer to the music and allow them to be more emotionally involved with the performances. I had an experience like that myself this afternoon. It was a performance I hadn't heard before or a piece I really wasn't familiar with. Honestly, it moved me quite deeply, which was a totally unexpected thing. The ferociousness of the playing, the depth of emotion in the playing...what was coming from the speakers caught me by surprise and pulled me in.

Now, here's the punch line: aurally what I was listening to was a nightmare. The track was "Ogunde" from John Coltrane's Olatunji Concert album. The concert, which was a full on free jazz blow out, took place in an auditorium and was recorded by an amateur in what amounts to an authorized bootleg. The balance is way off. The recording is a maelstrom of tenor sax and cymbal*. To add insult to injury, I was listening to a transcoded mp3 (from 128kbp WMA) which was being streamed to an iPod dock** across the room.

Yet, "Ogunde" completely stopped me in my tracks. And it, specifically Pharoah Sanders, scared the hell out of me. I was totally engrossed, despite the sonic scum.

Now, one could say even recorded and reproduced well, this album would be a wash of noise. I won't argue that 'Trane from this period is the very definition of difficult listening. In fact, it'd been so long since I've dug into this period (I've been heavy on the Fearless Leader box set from '57-'58 as of late) I'd really forgotten how out he got post '65.

However, the poor sound quality all the way down the line didn't take away the music's ability to hit me on an emotional level. Nor does the poor sound of early Louis Armstrong prevent me from enjoying those records either. And I still remember the first time I "got" Sgt. Pepper, it was on a cheap Walkman with crappy headphones.

High fidelity is fun and it can enhance your enjoyment of music, but it will never replace the intrinsic qualities of the music itself. The feeling, the spark, the emotion is either there or it isn't. While a high end stereo set up and a properly recorded source can make you feel like you're in the room with the musicians, it won't put that intangible "thing" into music that didn't have it before.

When I read reviews of high end gear, I have to feel sorry for people who seem to need $20k of speaker cable to get the same emotional impact from their music I can through a crappy pair of earbuds and an iPod. Granted, if I have a choice, I'd take better sound quality. In the end, the music is going to win out for me no matter what kind of audio roadblocks it's up against.

* and a duet for Jimmy Garrison's bass and car horn at the beginning of "My Favorite Things." Seems the taper was sitting close to an open window.

** Technically a PSP dock with an aux in. And to be fair, the amp in this critter is the (seriously, no joke) audiophile approved Sonic Impact T-Amp, but we're still talking about two 3" drivers about two feet apart for the loudspeaker section of this set up.


Anonymous said...

It is a flippin scary track. I'm listening to it now, and I can't tell if I'm being attacked by angry elephants, or there is someone screaming in pain.

Ryan said...

I'm intrigued by the possibility of a bass/car horn duet.